Walk-on to coach: How Jon Fleming moved from one seat on the bench to another

Jon Fleming, Kent State men’s basketball director of player development, poses for a portrait in the M.A.C. Center on Thursday, November 14, 2019.

In May 2013, Jon Fleming lay in bed in Fishers, Indiana, wondering if his dreams to play college basketball were exhausted. 

He had set records for assists in a game and a season at Fishers High School, despite standing at just 5 feet 9 inches. He never received a scholarship offer from a Division I school. Division II and III schools had called, but Fleming declined.  

The University of Illinois-Chicago and Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis, both Division I schools, had offered him a chance to walk on. After briefly looking into UI Chicago, Fleming knew it was not the right fit. In April, the IUPUI coach told Fleming they no longer needed a walk-on guard, but he could be a team manager. Fleming politely declined.

One day, Fleming’s father sat him down at the kitchen table and told him, “You need to start considering college without basketball.”

The thought made Fleming shudder.  

But about a week later, he got a call from Eric Schellhammer, his high school assistant coach. He told Fleming he was going to call Kent State assistant Eric Haut, an old coaching friend.

“They may have room for you,” Schellhammer said. 

Two hours later, Schellhammer called back.  

“They’ll have you,” Schellhammer said. First, though, Fleming had to actually apply to Kent State, which Fleming had never dreamed of attending. Then he had to visit and meet the coaches. 

Fleming hung up the phone grinning, his fingers fumbling as he typed his father’s number.  

“Kent State?”  Fleming’s father said. “I don’t know if you’re aware, but there’s some history there.” 

Fleming snorted. “Yeah, yeah,” Fleming replied. “Dad, I know you like history. 

“But that’s not the point. I might get to play college basketball!” 

Before then, Fleming had to go through a weekend graduation party — with an Indiana University theme. Fleming had been telling people for weeks he was going to be a Hoosier.

“Kent State is still unofficial,” Fleming’s father said. “We haven’t even gone on a visit yet.”

At the party, Fleming talked about dorm life at Indiana and classes he enrolled in for the fall. But everything, down to the red “IU” on his cake, was a lie.

Three days later, Fleming and his dad walked onto Kent State’s campus. They toured the M.A.C. Center and watched assistant coach DeAndre Haynes lead a skill workout.

As Fleming left the M.A.C.C., Haut stopped him on the steps.

“I’ll see you in a week,” he said.

Fleming smiled, happier than he had been in months. On the way off campus, he bought a yellow Kent State T-shirt from the university bookstore. 

A week later, Fleming returned to campus.

At his first practice, his teammates were a step quicker both mentally and physically. Fleming missed shots. He bobbled passes. 

After practice, coaches posted a non-metric evaluating each player.

Fleming’s score: minus-8, lowest on the team.

Coach Rob Senderoff does not even remember Fleming being there.

That night Fleming sat in his dorm room in Leebrick Hall and stewed over his performance. 

“Am I good enough?” he thought. “Was this a mistake? How can I prove myself?”

So he decided he would think less, act more and beat everyone to the ball on every play even if it meant making mistakes. 

The next day, his passes led teammates to open lanes. He dove for loose balls and shot less.

His metric this time: 22 — 12 higher than anyone else on the team. 

For the next six months, Fleming treated every practice like a tryout. He grew from an unsure freshman to understanding a Division I school actually wanted him.

He met with Senderoff for his post-season interview.

“We’d like to have you back next season,” Senderoff said. “Will you come back?” 

“Obviously, yes!” Fleming said with a grin. 

Throughout the offseason, Fleming worked outside of practice with Haynes on ball handling. 

“Dribble less,” Senderoff had carped at him all season.

In September, Senderoff gave Fleming his most important task yet— recruiting Jalen Avery.

Avery was the No. 2 point guard in the state of Ohio. Fleming and Avery shot around on an empty M.A.C. Center court with Fleming stressing the opportunities available at Kent State for Avery.

Over the next four years, Avery would become one of the faces of the Kent State basketball program, leading the nation in assist-turnover ratio twice.

Fleming spent more hours working with Haynes on shooting, ball handling and passing.

A few weeks before the season, Senderoff, again, pulled him into his office.

“Jon, it’s pretty clear you’re not going to get a lot of playing time,” Senderoff said. “Your job is going to be pushing your teammates in drills and giving them encouragement from the bench.”

The next week, Fleming began to speak up in practice and during timeouts. 

“Hey, I’ll lead this drill,” Fleming told his teammates.

Other guards watched as Fleming passed to Jimmy Hall, who rolled to the basket, leaving Senderoff and his teammates clapping in approval.

A few moments later, starting guard Devareuax Manley applied what Fleming did.

Fleming held his teammates accountable by simply working hard. They understood if they took him lightly he could embarrass them in front of the team. 

In March, Fleming scrimmaged against starting guard Manley as the Flashes prepared for the postseason College Insiders Tournament. 

Fleming gave Manley, the team’s best 3-point shooter, all he could handle.

After practice, guard Kris Brewer teased Manley.

“Fleming kind of killed you today,” Brewer said. 

“Hey!” Manley responded. “Fleming kills you all the time!”

Fleming laughed. “I’m doing something right,” he thought.

Still, Fleming played six minutes the entire season, and even then, only when the game was decided.

At the end of the season, Senderoff again pulled Fleming into his office.

“You’re doing the things that you need to do,” Senderoff told him. “But I can’t promise you will get playing time. 

“I know you can play somewhere else. If you need to get a permission-to-contact so other schools can talk to you, let me know. I want to keep you, but I also want you to be happy.”  

“Honestly, coach,” Fleming replied, “I don’t really know what I want.”

He talked to a few Division II schools. He talked to Haut, the coach who gave him a chance to play Division I basketball. Haut put it this way:

“Do you want to play 35 minutes your senior year and be a star on a Division II team? Or would it mean more to you to play three to five minutes a game as a backup point guard at Kent State?” 

Back in his dorm room, Fleming thought back to his decision to come to Kent in the first place. He thought about the people who had doubted his ability. He actually had a list in his room. It was now about 20 names long — with people who told him to quit playing basketball at some point. 

Fleming thought about what the doubters would say if he transferred. Even if he played well at a Division II school, there would always be an asterisk next to his achievements.

After a week, Fleming returned to Senderoff’s office. 

“I’m going to stay,” Fleming said. “I think this team is helping me become the best player I can be.” 

During the offseason, Fleming was running stairs outside of the gym in the M.A.C. Center when he heard a ball bouncing. He peeked through the doorway.

Avery stood alone shooting in the gym.

Fleming counted the shots Avery took.

So next time Fleming worked on his shot, he made sure he took more.

Avery watched him, and it turned into a competition. 

As workouts went on, Fleming posted a Snapchat story with the number of shots he made. Avery saw it and responded with a Snapchat story of his own a few days later. The competition lasted into the preseason. Fleming shot 300 times. Avery shot 400. The next day, Fleming shot 450 shots. Avery shot 500.

Fleming’s expectations heading into his junior year were high. He thought he would be contributing off the bench.

He quickly realized that he would not.

But Fleming ran the scout team. He led drills in practice. He beat starters in drills when they had off days.

He still did not play much. He finished the season with four points, one rebound and one steal in a total of nine minutes.

But he was beginning to understand what Senderoff meant— the impact he left on others was his legacy. 

By his senior season, Fleming became a leader of the team.

Avery approached him on the bench during timeouts to ask what the opposing teams were doing. 

In February, Flashes were floundering around .500 in the middle of Mid American Conference play and were struggling on the road at Miami.

In the locker room at halftime, Fleming stood in front of the team.

“Each individual has got to find a reason to fight out there,” Fleming said. “If you can’t find a reason to fight, fight for me because I don’t want my senior year to end like this.”

The Flashes scored 50 points in the second half.

The team won five of its last six regular season games. Though a sixth seed, they swept four games in the MAC Tournament to qualify for the team’s first NCAA tournament in nine years. A week later they were in Sacramento, playing UCLA.

The Flashes lost 97-80 on national TV in the last game of the first round. Fleming played one minute and recorded a steal. He was the last Kent State player off the court. He just stood on the court at Golden 1 Center and thought about how everyone in America watched the kid nobody wanted, play in college basketball’s biggest event. 

Back in Kent, Fleming tucked the list of doubters in a drawer. He no longer needed it.

A few weeks later, he received his diploma in communication studies. A few days after graduation Senderoff named him a graduate assistant.

His approach changed from showing his teammates how to do a drill to telling how his former teammates should do a drill.  

The team listened. They knew he had done everything he was asking them to do. He had run sprints. He had lifted weights. He had woken up early.

People  — including some on that list of doubters who had told him he was not good enough for Division I —were now telling him he was good enough to coach at the college level.

Over the next two years, Fleming did everything from load equipment on the bus to help scout opposing teams. 

During his final game as a graduate assistant, Haut was sick, and Senderoff needed someone to talk to the team about the scouting report for the upcoming CIT game at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. 

Fleming walked into the locker room to write the opposing personnel on the board and give the speech.

“You doing this now?” Avery asked with a smile. Fleming nodded. “OK, big time,” Avery said.

Through his last months of being a graduate assistant, Fleming searched for a job anywhere. 

Some nights, Fleming sat in his apartment and thought about the past six years. 

His time at Kent State had ended­­­­— or so he thought.

But in September, former director of player development Randal Holt left for an assistant coaching position at SUNY Stony Brook.

Senderoff interviewed a few candidates before pulling Fleming into his office to offer him the job.  

“Your first six years here were your interview,” Senderoff said.

 A day later, Fleming walked into the M.A.C.C. for his first day on the job. The nameplate on the door read:

Jon Fleming

Director of Player Development 

Contact Ian Kreider at [email protected]